The Great War
1914 - 1918
Compiled by John Silby
Rocky Hill War Memorial stands high above the city of Goulburn, New South Wales. It was built in 1925 to
honour the men and women from the area who served in the first world war. It gives great views over the town
in every direction. When I visited in 1985 I was moved by a display of large photos of the aftermath of World
War 1 in Belgium and northern France.
The utter destruction depicted was breathtaking, and it had a profound effect on me. If ever there was evidence
of the futility of war, I thought, this was it. I’ve remembered those photos from time to time over the years,
always with the same response. A few days ago I decided to search online to see if I could find similar images.
What I found inspired this presentation. It’s not my intention to impose my convictions on anyone; I think
these photos tell a story that’s worth sharing.
The Great War was so named because it was thought it would be the war to end all wars. Sadly, that hasn’t
been the case, and it seems mankind still hasn’t learned.
The war began at the end of July 1914, and continued
relentlessly until November 11, 1918.
The conflict involved all of the world's great powers
in two opposing alliances: the Allies (France and the
British and Russian Empires) and the Central
Powers (the German, Austro-Hungarian and
Ottoman Empires, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria).
About 70 million military personnel were involved
and around nine million of those were killed. It is
estimated that eight million civilians were killed.
By the end of the war, Germany had been defeated.
The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had
been defeated and carved up into smaller states.
Russia had been defeated by German and Austrian
forces, and the 1917 revolution and later civil war led
to the emergence of the Soviet Union - the world’s
first communist state.
The League of Nations was formed in the hope of
preventing another such conflict. However,
European nationalism ignited by the war and the
break-up of empires, together with the repercussions
of Germany's defeat led to the beginning of World
War II in 1939.
For troops of both sides, conditions on and off the
battlefield seem to have been horrendous, especially
during the winters. The relentless slog with little
progress was surely frustrating and demoralising.
For those who returned, the death and devastation
they witnessed must have had a lasting effect.
For the local people, the constant bombardment
must have been nerve-wracking, and the destruction
of their villages, homes and fields heart-breaking.
For everyone, the sudden silence as hostilities ended
would have sounded eerie. Perhaps it even seemed
too good to be true.
When the troops went home, those who were left
behind - who were already home - had to face the
enormous task of rebuilding their lives and
In France alone...
• 300,000 houses, 6,000 factories, 1,500 schools and
1,200 churches were destroyed.
• over 20,000 km2
of farmland was laid waste and
1.3 million livestock were lost.
• nearly 5,000 km2
of forest was laid waste.
The Allies demanded huge sums in reparations
(Germany paid its last instalment in October 2010),
yet those payments covered only the obvious costs.
There was also an inestimable hidden toll, and the
effects of that - veterans’ and survivors’ benefits, lost
production, lost breadwinners, and scarred lives, for
example - continue today. In some places a whole
generation of young men was wiped out.
In a sense the war continues today, too. More than
90 years on, burial sites are still coming to light.
Authorities go to great lengths to identify the bodies,
and where they are successful families can finally put
to rest their missing loved ones. Freshly ploughed
fields continue to turn up ammunition and other
artefacts. Trenches and craters can still be seen.
For much of the war on the Western Front, troops
were bogged down in trenches. The enemy was
sometimes only a few metres away. In October 1914
the Front stretched for 750 km.
Artillery bombardment reduced villages to rubble
and left craters in roads and fields. Woods were
pounded to splinters, leaving only bare, broken
trunks standing. In wet weather fields and trenches
became seas of mud, and roads turned to slush from
the heavy traffic of men, horses and equipment.
The majority of these photos are British and
Australian simply because they were easier to find.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter who caused the
destruction… the end result was the same.
The captions are pretty much as I found them. Some
are repetitious, and it’s easy to imagine the
photographer sighing, “Another day, another ruin.”
It seems the photographers’ instinct for a good shot
survived, however, even in the midst of the mayhem.
Some of the photos, in contrast to the “workaday”
nature of most of the others, depict an awesome,
harsh, raw kind of beauty.
I knew a simple soldier boy...
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
And no one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
[Crumps: the noise made by shells falling in soft earth | Kindling: shining or enthusiastic]
Suicide in the Trenches by Siegfried Sassoon
Some of the photos were taken by Australian photographer Capt Frank Hurley
The National Library of Australia has published his war diary online:
official War Photographer Commonwealth Military Forces,from 21 August 1917 to 31 August 1918Flanders - France - Lon
He writes in considerable detail about conditions on and off the battlefield and gives a
fascinating first-hand account of what it was like to be there. He describes life in the
trenches and dugouts, and the sights, sounds and feel of the conflict.
He talks about the “awfulness” of the battlefield, and his voice, through his writing,
complements and reinforces the story told by the photos.
The State Library of NSW has an album of his wartime photos online:
An Exhibition of war photographs taken by Capt. F. Hurley, August 1917-August 1918
[click on link to open site in your browser]
Rocky Hill War Memorial and Museum
First World War
Map of European Alliances 1914
First World War French property losses
First World War casualties
The Great War in Numbers
Germany Closes Book on World War I With Final Reparations Payment
Photos of The Great War: Death and Destruction
World War One Photo Archive
The Heritage of the Great War (includes a gallery of German photos)
Suicide in the Trenches
[click on link to open site in your browser]
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